Wednesday, December 19, 2007

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 23, 2007)

[Each week I present several looks at the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday worship services. These passes will be more abbreviated than usual, because I'm not preaching this Sunday. Instead, our children will be presenting the annual Christmas program on that day.]

This Week's Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

General Comments:
(1) This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Advent, as mentioned previously, is a word that means coming or appearing. In Advent, we not only remember how the world awaited the appearing of the Messiah in the centuries before Jesus' birth. We also remind ourselves that we await His return on what the Bible calls, "the Day of the Lord." The crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus will come back, judge the living and the dead, and establish His Kingdom in its fullness. (Of course, Advent is also the time when we "wait" to celebrate Christmas each year.)

(2) Isaiah 7:10-16: Throughout Advent, our Old Testament lessons have been drawn from Isaiah. This passage comes from that section of the book thought to have been written sometime between 740 and 700 B.C. Chris Haslam writes informatively of this passage:
Assyria, under Tiglath-pileser III, is intent on expanding westwards. The kings of “Aram” (vv. 1, 2, 5, 8, Syria) and of Israel (also called “Ephraim”) have formed a coalition to resist the advances of their common enemy. They have tried to convince “Ahaz” (v. 1), king of Judah and of the “house of David” (v. 2) to join the alliance; he has refused. Now they seek to put a puppet king on Judah’s throne. God has commanded Isaiah to “meet Ahaz” (v. 3) as he inspects the water supply vital to Jerusalem’s defence. Isaiah tells him: “take heed ... do not fear ... these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (v. 4) who have “plotted evil against you” (v. 5). “If you do not stand firm in faith” (v. 9, trust in God) but rely on human counsel, you will be defeated.

God now speaks again to Ahaz: ask any “sign” (v. 11), any confirmation of my promise delivered by Isaiah – any at all in all creation. (“Sheol” was the subterranean abode of the dead.). But it seems that Ahaz has already made up his mind (v. 12) so, through Isaiah, God gives to the “house of David” (v. 13) not a “sign” (v. 11) to convince Ahaz, but one which speaks to future generations. God will keep the promise he made to David (through Nathan): “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me” (2 Samuel 7:16). “The young woman” (v. 14, most likely Ahaz’s wife) is pregnant; David’s line will continue; she will name her son “Immanuel” (meaning God with us). (This son was Hezekiah.) In a devastated land (paying heavy tribute to Assyria), where only basic food is available (“curds and honey”, v. 15), he will develop moral discrimination – unlike recent kings, who were deemed wicked, ungodly people. By this time, Assyria will have conquered both Syria and Israel (v. 16).
Ahaz represents many believers probably. At least at some times in our lives. Ahaz knows that he can go to God in prayer. God has even told Ahaz to pray. But he refuses because he clearly doesn't think that God will give him the answer he wants to hear!

(2) Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19: The historical context in which this Psalm was written is suggested by verse 2, in which three tribal provinces of the Northern Kingdom (called Israel or later, Samaria) are mentioned. This suggests that it was composed before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the same period of apprehension and fear addressed in Isaiah.

(3) The refrain of the Psalm, found in verses 3, 7, and 19, asks for restoration from God. The psalmist, said to be written by Asaph, clearly sees the rebelliousness of God's people as the reason that foreign powers are menacing them.

(4) In verse 17, the psalmist prays for the king to make the right decision. This is interesting in light of what the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah discusses: a king who refuses to seek God's counsel. In his book, Prayer, The Mightiest Force In The World: Thoughts For An Atomic Age, Frank Laubach suggested that we should not only pray that God would show leaders His will, but that they would be receptive to what God shows them.

(5) The psalmist describes the king as "the one whom you made strong for yourself." In their New Testament letters, both Paul and Peter, urge prayers for and obedience to leaders as the authority to govern comes from God, for God's purposes. (This doesn't mean that autocrats are to be obeyed blindly. Kings and presidents, like the rest of us mortals, are to love their neighbors as they love themselves.)

(6) This Psalm, with its recollections of Israel's wilderness wanderings, most likely was composed for use during one of the great annual festivals of Judaism, the Festival of Booths. For more on that, see here.

[More on Friday, I hope.]

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